The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Question 1: How do I deal with colleagues overruling my communications expertise?

Thanks everyone who responded to yesterday’s post inviting questions. I got dozens, and in the coming weeks I will answer nearly all (I’m skipping the few thinly veiled product marketing queries).

Let’s kick if off with questions from Stephen and Anonymous:

First, Stephen:

As a communicator for nonprofits, in my paid, day job and for other volunteer jobs I do, I run across situations regularly in which other, non-communications staff don’t seem to want to let the communicators do the communications. There seems to be an attitude that because we all consume communications (use the web, watch TV, read newsletters, etc.) anyone, from a CEO to an accountant, can produce communications materials. Is this is matter of trust? Would a CEO try to tell the CFO to not use standard accounting principles to produce a regular financial report? Why is it that non-communicators want to throw standard communications principles out the window? I often feel that my only role is to implement what others have decided rather than being allowed to lead (with some input as appropriate) and being seen as an expert in an area. What techniques can you recommend to get others to work *with* me rather than telling me what to do or how to do my job in the way they, as a non-expert, think is best?

Anonymous followed up with:

First of all, what Stephen said, times a million. Up until recently, our mailed appeals (sent to our entire data base) have been very “story-focused” – we highlight real people and situations our donors have impacted positively. These appeals included lots of photos and were very emotion-driven. Our new development director is insisting the way to go is business-like “asks” on letterhead sent out to small segments of our database on a much less frequent basis. Your thoughts?

Dear Stephen & Anonymous,

I’ve noticed a pattern after I give a speech. At least two or three people with a desperate look in their eye come forward, take my hand, and ask me to please come speak to their board – or organization – or boss. “Do you present to small groups?” they ask. After a while, I finally figured out what they were really saying, which was: “Can you please come talk sense into my board/organization/boss? Maybe they will listen to you, because they’re not listening to me.” I feel their pain. We’ve all been there. And unfortunately, no speech is going to change the situation. I doubt there will come a day when you (or I) can convince colleagues we’re the only experts.

And it’s not just because we are in the business of communications. Ask any doctor. A lot of patients point to Internet research and question a diagnosis. Ask any IT guy who is repairing a non-IT colleague’s DIY work on the laptop. And yes, even that CFO. People probably double guess his assertions about risk and what we should really be spending.

It’s people’s nature – especially if there is something at stake – to enthusiastically involve themselves. The fact that technology makes that easy – anyone can be a published writer, photographer, “expert,” musician, filmmaker these days – only strengthens that tendency. And add the culture of a nonprofit – where everyone feels a strong belonging to a collective mission – and you’ve got a triple threat to your communications authority.

I don’t mean to be depressing. I’m just saying you can’t change the yearning of people to participate in what you say and how you say it. At at the end of the day, I’m glad we work for organizations with such a passionate sense of shared ownership. It’s better than places where no one cares. Even if it’s a pain sometimes.

The first step is to understand why people want and need to participate. I expect they want to:

1. Feel like the public face of the organization is aligned to their priorities

2. Feel like communications reflect their perception of the mission and what makes them most proud of it

3. Feel like communications will do no harm

4. Feel like communications will advance the mission – raise money, increase advocacy, etc.

You notice this list is all about feeling. My sense is people are interfering not because they fancy themselves experts but because 1) they want to be involved and 2) they are afraid of the factors in this list. You need to address these feelings, and when you do, your life will get easier.

Stephen, I’d recommend the following:

1. LISTEN: Ask your boss what is most important to him or her at the organization, what messages s/he most needs to convey this year, and what s/he wants the organization to stand for in the eyes of others.
2. PROBE: Ask this person what s/he fears could happen from communications and what s/he dreams could unfold.
3. CONNECT: Show (don’t tell) you’re an expert by explaining what you want to do to address everything you just heard. Base it on past results, evidence, feedback from donors, etc. – not just your opinion (even if you’re of course right).

See? You just made it about the boss or colleague, not you, and in so doing have reduced (if not removed) impediments to doing your job. Also, you probably learned something important. Now you can keep reporting back how communications is advancing your colleague’s vision, which is stellar communications practice in itself. For this reason, you will be good at it.

That brings me to #4, which applies to Anonymous.

Anonymous, I’d recommend you ask the same questions above and then defer to your donors. My fourth point is, don’t make it your opinion vs. the boss’s opinion. Show your director the letters from donors moved to tears by the story of a life they changed. Share the story of the $1 million planned gift that came from a supporter who wanted to save one more life. Read the emails you get in response to the way you convey the soul-building essence of your organization. Ask donors why they give and share their answers (which are always from the heart). And trot out angry notes (if you’ve ever had them) from donors who didn’t get enough information on the impact of their gift.

And if you don’t have any of that material, be open to the fact you might need to tweak your approach. It all depends on the audience. Maybe you have donors who prefer this other approach. Or maybe you need a combination of stories and proof of impact at scale. Put together a little advisory committee of your donors and run by various approaches. Your donors will give you the right answer. And if you show you’re listening to them, maybe your director will listen to you.

Good luck!


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Connie Poulos
Senior Associate, Copywriter

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